It was his love for the finest things in life that spurred on this computer science graduate to open up South Africa’s first shop selling nothing but whisky.
The son of a butcher, Marc Pendlebury was in his early twenties when he tasted his first drop of whisky. Soon it became his drink, while he was a computer science student in the United States.
He moved back to South Africa in 2004, landing his first job as a developer then later becoming a performance manager. A few years in the job, Pendlebury became a business analyst in the financial services sector. As the years went on, Pendlebury was progressing from being a casual whisky drinker to one who wanted to know more about it.
A gift of an 18-year-old Glenfiddich single malt Scotch that would become a catalyst in his appreciation for premium whiskies.
“I knew it was a special bottle. Obviously, it was expensive. It wasn’t something you saw everywhere. It was older than most whiskies. It was one of the catalysts on my journey,” says Pendlebury.
“I remember vividly, even at my age then, that bottle lasted me over a year. Most guys at the age of 22 or 23 are not going to keep a bottle like that for a year. For me it was on a special occasion. I poured myself one, and my friend was a whisky enthusiast as well, so we’d pour this whisky every now and again. We’d share a moment and make it memorable.”
So, when Twitter came along, Pendlebury opened an account and called it. Here he would exchange views and facts about whiskies with likeminded tweeters.
But 140 characters were not enough. So he started a blog with the same name. From here his following grew.
Between his job and his new found hobby of writing about whiskies, and visiting distilleries around the world, he had an epiphany. He realized that South Africa didn’t have a shop that sold only whisky.
Most South African’s bought their whisky from wholesalers that didn’t bother to sell high-end bottles of whisky.
“It made sense that a store like this would work, if you kind of captured the market. Four or five years ago, I wasn’t ready to do it. I started thinking about it more and more. And I kept thinking that if no one has done it and I’m ready to it then I’ll give it a go,” says Pendlebury.
“I was bored, it was corporate. It was at that stage in my career where I’d look around for another job or gone to my senior managers and said ‘look I need a bigger challenge.’”
Instead he quit.
And with no business training or retail experience Pendlebury opened a whisky shop. He learned he had to raise capital for this store. He sold his car and scooter, and cashed in his provident fund. Other challenges were finding a location and cutting through red-tape of getting a liquor license which delayed the shop from opening.
But in 2012, there was Christmas cheer from South African whisky enthusiasts. Four years after Pendlebury started the blog, he opened one of South Africa’s only whisky boutique stores at the swanky Hyde Park Corner.
“It’s more affluent than anywhere else in Joburg. And it’s not about mass volume of traffic but there’s a good conversion in the traffic you do get. There’s far fewer people coming through the door, but in terms of disposable income, it’s much higher,” says Pendlebury.
“What I don’t need is to set up a store that has a 100 people come in a day but only 10 people buy. I’d rather have 15 people come in a day and 10 people buy. That’s kind of what I’m seeing.”
The bare brick walled store is quiet, lined with bottles of liquid sunshine placed on wooden shelves from the cold tiled floor to the ceiling. The bottles come from Japan, Scotland, Ireland and the United States.
Near the back of the store are the premium bottles, shelved in a glass door cupboard.
This is where you will find a Bruichladdich single malt Scotch going for R3,300 ($310) a bottle, a Port Ellen for R8,700 ($830) and a 40-year-old single malt Glenfiddich, waiting to be picked up by a customer for R49,000 ($4,700).
And the best way to enjoy a glass of these pricey whiskies is fine, neat and without ice, in a quiet corner.
“A fine whisky should be drunk in a fine manner. It should be about appreciating what’s there and that means the circumstances allow you to appreciate what’s there. If you’re overwhelmed and your senses are being bombarded, how are you really going to appreciate a 21-year-old Balvenie? With that said, whisky is very versatile but don’t waste your time on something fine if you can’t appreciate what it is,” says Pendlebury.
Since the store opened, the 33-year-old says any entrepreneur that doesn’t think they need to work hard is kidding themselves.
“It cannot be any other way, if you’ve managed to raise capital for a project, and you’re the driver behind that project, you have to be involved particularly in the short term to an extended amount. My hope is after a year or so, I can remove myself from the daily running of the business. That’s not my specialty,” says Pendlebury.
“Last night, as an example, I worked from 10 until three, closed the store, came in with one of my guys and cleaned the store. Who else is going to do it? I mean, this is my baby. In time, the less skilled daily requirements of the business can be done by other guys.”
With nearly two years of running the store, Pendlebury says cash flow continues to be a challenge, along with keeping the customers happy. At least for now he’s found a solution to keeping customers satisfied – by bringing in new brands every two weeks.
“I’m very pleased with the performance. But obviously, as a new business, cash flow is still an issue. My cash flow is managed on a daily basis to make sure I can pay for the right stock, at the right time, I can pay my overheads, I can pay my rental for the space, pay for salaries, etc. So it’s still tight, we’re definitely not out of the clear yet, but we’re on our way to being safe. I can see that it is viable and that with a little bit more time we will be sustainable as well,” he says.
Besides running the store, Pendlebury offers tasting evenings where he shares the history and knowledge about whiskies – to the last drop.